“Wild Canaries” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and is available to rent on video-on-demand, including Amazon Prime and iTunes. Not rated, 1:42, three stars out of four.
You know what a musical “sting” is? It’s a sudden jolt of “Duh DUH!” music in a movie soundtrack, like a blast of horns, intended to maximize the surprise or shock of a moment in a movie, usually in a thriller.
“Wild Canaries” has comically oversized stings, stings that don’t just startle you, but come right up and punch you in the face. These are “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”-sized stings. That they’re so ridiculously big speaks to the tone of Lawrence Michael Levine’s funny, fizzy screwball comedy, an homage to old mystery spoofs set among the hipsters of Brooklyn.
The opening shot, an iris shot on a gloved hand opening the door, sets the mood, as does the irresistible score, which combines Henry Mancini and dub reggae. Noah and Barri (Levine and Sophie Takal, real-life husband and wife) are a Brooklyn couple — he’s shaggy and neurotic, she’s high-strung and restless. When the old lady upstairs dies under mysterious circumstances, Barri suspects that her son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) may have offed her, in part because she had a lot of money, and in part because he’s played by Kevin Corrigan.
Wearing an “Annie Hall”-sized hat (in case you’ve missed the homages to “Manhattan Murder Mystery”), Barri investigates, dragging both Noah and their lesbian roommate pal Jean (Alia Shawkat), along with his ex-girlfriend turned lesbian Eleanor (Annie Parisse) along for the ride. There is much sneaking around other people’s apartments, slow-motion car chases through Brooklyn traffic, even some of those masks only in movies which transform one actor into another. It’s like “Scooby-Doo” for the artisanal cupcake set.
“Wild Canaries” is a bit of an amiable slow burn for the first half, as the film lets itself get distracted by subplots involving Noah and Barri’s relationship issues, or Barri and Jean’s plan to convert an old Catskills resort into a music festival venue. All the actors are charming, but Levine probably relies on the hang-out appeal of his characters for a little too long.
But the movie does pick up steam in the second half, as Barri and Noah find themselves in peril and spectacularly ill-suited as sleuths. The nods to old Woody Allen and Peter Sellers movies are affectionate (when Noah fumbles trying to untie a captive, and exclaims “I’m not an outdoorsy person!,” it sounds like a line the Woodman would have approved of), and the film does manage to generate some goofy suspense.
While “Wild Canaries” has the pedigree of a microbudget New York indie, it’s unabashed aim to just entertain audiences smacks of old-school Hollywood, and it mostly succeeds through its zany charm. I could even see sequels, a “Thin Man” series for Brooklynites — who are already pretty thin as it is.